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28 February 2011, Gateway House

A tale of two rockets

While ISRO works on maturing the GSLV technology, India should cash in on GSLV’s younger sibling - the successful and highly reliable PSLV - to compete in the international launch business.


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There are only a handful of nations capable of building and launching satellites. India is one of them. India’s national space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has two launch vehicles in its fleet – (1) the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) meant for launching earth observation satellites into sun synchronous orbit (SSO) and small satellites into low earth orbit (LEO), and (2) the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV) for launching telecommunications satellites into the 36,000 km geostationary orbit. The success of both will establish India as a leading global player in all rocket launch categories.

Recently, however, the programme has had a setback. Two consecutive GSLV rocket launches eight months apart, one in April 2010 and another in December 2010, failed. The implication is huge: Every GSLV that fails, slows down India’s ambition to compete in the lucrative global commercial launch market – estimated to reach $12 billion by 2018 – for heavy tonnage telecommunications satellites (comsats) in the geostationary orbit, the kind launched by the GSLV.  While India has a capability, it also has powerful rivals – the French Ariane, American Delta, Chinese Long March and Russian Soyuz – that have seen greater success.

There were differences between the two recent Indian launches – the April flight was the ‘first test flight’ of the indigenously developed GSLV cryogenic upper stage, while the December flight was powered by the Russian cryogenic engine. While the April flight was a Mk-II heavy variant of the GSLV, the December flight was a Mk-I light variant.[1]

The failure[2]  of the April flight was understandable – typical of any new rocket technology being tested for the first time, in India or elsewhere. But what was completely unexpected was the December failure – caused by apparent loss of control of the boosters – which used tried and tested Russian cryogenic technology.

ISRO, however, is pressing on. The Mk-II is yet to have a successful flight, but ISRO is also busy developing GSLV Mk-III intended for heavier comsats weighing 4,500 to 5,000 kg. Only after Mk-III reliability is established, can India truly compete in the highly profitable market segment for geostationary launches.[3]

ISRO needs at least a few years, if not more, to develop, launch and establish the reliability of the GSLV Mk-I, II and III variants and make them market worthy. While that happens, India should aggressively commercialize GSLV’s younger sibling, the PSLV – the little champ that India has ignored for long.

The PSLV[4] plays in a market space completely different from that of the GSLV. The PSLV is designed to launch earth observation satellites into sun synchronous orbits (SSO). It can also launch satellites into low earth orbit (LEO) and small payloads into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). The current market leader in this class of launch vehicles is the Russian Dnepr rocket, but there are two other new rockets the PSLV will have to compete with – the American Falcon-1 and the European Vega.

The first developmental flight of the PSLV in India took place in September 1993. Since May 1999, the PSLV has had 13 consecutive successful launches and has established itself as a highly reliable rocket in its class of launch vehicles. For many years now, the PSLV has successfully launched India’s earth observation satellites. The Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) system, launched by the PSLV, is one of the largest constellations of remote-sensing satellites in operation in the world, with 10 satellites currently orbiting the earth.

The PSLV has also launched 27 foreign satellites over the last decade. Most of these have been secondary launches where the primary payload was a domestic satellite. While the list of countries is impressive – Singapore, Indonesia, Germany and Italy are some – the cumulative payload mass is just 1,330 kilograms, barely equivalent to a single PSLV launch. This is because Antrix, ISRO’s marketing arm focuses on getting “secondary launch” (piggyback) candidates to fill up residual space onboard the PSLV (the “primary launch” candidate being a domestic satellite). So far, there has been only one “dedicated commercial launch” on the PSLV, that of an Italian satellite in April 2007.

PSLV’s main competitor, the Russian Dnepr, has launched nearly double the number of foreign payloads over the past decade; its commercial payload mass for the same period is nearly 7.5 times that of the PSLV. If India is serious about competing in the international launch market, it needs to start focusing on dedicated commercial launches rather than piggybacks. The international launch market is extremely lucrative and one of the fastest growing sectors in the space industry. India has barely begun to scratch the surface of this enormous market.[5]

Theoretically, ISRO is capable of building and launching five to six PSLVs per year. But for the past few years, it has barely launched two a year. This is most likely because our national priorities precede any commercial intent. While this may seem appropriate, commercial intent can be pursued in parallel and does not have displace priority missions. As a nation, we have an opportunity to articulate and pursue commercial dominance of the international launch market as part of the mission of our space programme.

Here is how we go about it:

(1) Develop a commercial mindset, an international outlook

India needs to develop an extroverted space policy that will encourage companies, new and old, to take on international competitors. This will happen with the presence of a vibrant private space industry that can perform the entire gamut of launch activities. At the moment, India’s so-called space industry only comprises companies that supply parts to ISRO for meeting domestic needs. ISRO and Antrix (ISRO’s marketing arm) of are of course important, but are hindered by being government-run and bureaucratic, without a commercial appetite and an understanding of the international space marketplace.

(2) Privatize routine rocket manufacturing and launches

ISRO should focus on its core mandate – Research & Development (R&D). The GSLV is still in a developmental phase, so ISRO could run that program until it achieves full maturity to become a commercial player. Routine rocket manufacturing, as in the case of the PSLV, should be outsourced to private companies. The private sector will stay away if its business is limited to being ISRO suppliers, where volume and margins are low. With the PSLV, however, private companies can compete for international business, making the PSLV an attractive candidate for privatization.

(3) Have multiple launch pads and launch sites

For now, ISRO has two launch pads at its spaceport in Sriharikota. These pads give priority to domestic launches. India needs to consider setting up a commercial spaceport, not just for commercializing the PSLV (and eventually the GSLV), but also to tap into the emerging space tourism industry. In addition, locating launch sites in different states is advisable. This will help decouple domestic from commercial international launches. It will also create new employment opportunities around the commercial launch base and help develop a grassroots interest in space technologies especially among the young and by creating alternative sites. Finally, having alternative sites will reduce the risk of shutdown or slowdown in unforeseen circumstances.

(4) Re-size the rocket to match commercial demand

At the moment, Antrix needs to commission market studies for small satellite launches to determine PSLV variants that are best suited for mee
ting commercial demand. Market studies by researchers such as Maryland-based Futron suggest there is a need to develop PSLV variants that serve the growing microsatellite market.[6]

(5) Plan ahead and publish a clear manifest

The PSLV launch manifest (timetable) is fluid and unpredictable. It is tied to the readiness of launch of domestic satellites and Antrix’s ability to fill up residual space with commercial payloads. Without a clear launch manifest – at least two years in advance – it is difficult to sign up commercial clients looking for dedicated launches. These clients are a lot more demanding because they pay for the entire launch and are unwilling to put up with the uncertainties that piggy back clients are willing to bear because the latter pay relatively very little for hitching a ride.

(6) Avoid using ad hoc pricing

Ad hoc launch pricing is frustrating for commercial customers looking for dedicated launches. Antrix could publish launch prices, revised annually, for commercial and non-commercial payloads, for piggy-back and dedicated launches. The pricing could be on a per-kilogram basis or on the basis of payload volume or both. It could also be a function of how much a client is willing to pay up-front. Either way, the key is having rationale and predictability to pricing. India could differentiate itself from competitors by setting a new benchmark in launch pricing methods.

(7) Minimize inefficiencies in the supply chain

It is absolutely essential to streamline the supply chain to cut costs and increase capacity, both in manufacturing and launch. The PSLV relies on several industrial vendors and on ISRO – no different from others in the world. But with the launch market becoming competitive, the future lies in consolidating and streamlining the supply chain. No matter how good the technology, supply chain economics is critical to commercial success.

(8) Use aggressive marketing, branding and Public Relations (PR)

ISRO’s technological accomplishments in space have put India among the top five space-faring nations of the world. However, it has been, for various reasons, a media-shy and inward-looking organization. For India to be a global player, it is essential to have international visibility and send a clear message about India’s commercial space ambitions. For now, the message is non-existent. ISRO and Antrix need to have an aggressive and well-oiled marketing, branding and PR machine.

(9) Leverage bilateral ties in emerging economies

In addition to the more developed launch markets like the United States and Europe, India should focus on emerging markets in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. It should leverage its growing trade ties with these regions and use bilateral relations as the basis for new satellite and launch contracts. China seems to be doing this very effectively.

(10) Bet on young entrepreneurs and new companies

As it did with IT, the Indian government needs to create a business environment to nurture a new breed of entrepreneurs that will go out and privatize the space sector and compete in the international market. Breakthrough innovation almost always comes from new entrants, rather than existing corporations that are weighed down by entrenched business models and legacy cost structures.

(11) Think in 50 to 100 year cycles, not in 5 to 10 year cycles

India needs vision as much as it needs an outward-looking, even aggressive, space policy. India needs to think long term while creating a commercial roadmap for space, taking into account launches of telecommunication and earth observation satellites, as also for planetary exploration and utilization, tourism and future settlements in space.

[1] The first developmental flight of the Mk-I took place nearly a decade ago in April 2001, while the April 2010 flight was a debut flight of the Mk II. It has taken a good ten years for ISRO to develop and launch the sequel (Mk-II) to the Mk-I. ISRO has launched a total of seven GSLV flights to date, six Mk-I variants and one Mk-II. Four out of these seven have been launch failures, one was a partial success and two were fully successful (Mk-I) launches.

[2] The launch capacity of the GSLV has increased from 1,530 kg in 2001 for GSAT-1 to 2,220 kg for GSAT-4 in April 2010. The GSLV Mk-I(a), Mk-I(b), and Mk-II variants are capable of launching 1,500 kg, 1,900 kg, and 2,500 kg respectively.

[3] Euroconsult, a leading international research and analyst firm based in Paris, forecast a growth of 15 percent in the comsat market, to 234, in the number of satellites to be launched between 2009 and 2018. Between 2012 and 2018, the report says: 13 percent of all commercial telecom satellites will weigh more than 6,500 kg; 27 percent will weigh between 5,500 kg and 6,500 kg; 36 percent will weigh between 3,500 kg and 5,500 kg, and 24 percent will weigh between 1,500 kg to 3,500 kg. The average satellite price over the next decade will be $99 million, compared to $97 million in the past 10 years. The per-satellite launch price is predicted to remain flat, at $51 million.

[4] The PSLV “standard version” is capable of launching 1600 kg to 622 km SSO. The “core alone version” (without any strap-on boosters) can launch 1,100 kg to 622 km SSO. The “XL version” has a payload capacity of 1800 kg and was used for the launch of India’s first lunar mission Chandrayaan-1. There is also a “3-stage version” (standard version 4-stage) capable of placing 500 kg to LEO.

[5] According to Euroconsult, 1185 satellites (does not include spacecraft weighing less than 40 kg; excludes military satellites) expected to be launched in the next 10 years, a 47 percent increase over the 10 years ending in 2008. Of these, 234 are communication satellites. The remaining 951 could be, quite literally speaking, for the PSLV to have (or lose).

[6] Here are some comparative figures for payload capacities for the PSLV and its two competitors.

Payload to LEO in kilograms: Dnepr = 4500, PSLV = 3250, Falcon-1 = 670

Payload to SSO in kilograms: Dnepr = 2300, PSLV = 1600, Falcon-1 = 430)

Susmita Mohanty is the founder and CEO of Earth2Orbit, India’s first private space start-up.

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